I’ve just finished reading a book that came recommended by mkbawa (and winner of the Pulitzer Prize): “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond.
The book takes 480 pages to answer question posed in 1972 by Yali, a politician from New Guinea: “Why do the white folk have all the cargo?” (I’m paraphrasing here). Yali was curious as to why all the visiting white people ha such cool stuff, stuff like guns, germs and steel. Actually, he only liked the guns and steel.
Yali’s question had great implications, and the author used the question to launch an evaluation of the development of today’s social and anthropological environment. H explores what he believes are the factors that have contributed to ‘white europeans’ becoming imperialists and ‘ruling’ the modern world. What he found can be boiled down into the following points:
- Geographical diversity means biological diversity, which allows for plants that can be cultivated
- Longitudinally oriented continents allow plants, animals and technology to be spread among cultures
- Large animals suitable for domestication are necessary for success
- Domestication of animals leads to the introduction of diseases. Although diseases can be damaging, the introduction of diseases over time allows societies to adapt, as has occurred in the old world. Conversely, the introduction of multiple diseases to previous unexposed societies is devastating, and has provided a great advantage to old world societies looking to conquer new lands.
- Societies and states within a region must be diverse enough to allow for competing technologies to develop, yet not so different that ideas are not allowed to spread between states.
There are some other points, but you can get an idea of where he is coming from. His aim seems to be to dismiss the idea that any people are genetically inferior, and he attributes much of social development to environmental factors. At times it seems his agricultural focus gets a bit overbearing (which is warranted when you consider the author’s background), but you always have the option of skimming through.
What the book is successful in doing is using small case studies, like Micronesia, to illustrate factors that have affected larger societies and continents. It is great to see his theories in action on a smaller scale – and it brings about the realization of how seemingly dissimilar cultures will natrually adapt in similar ways (and in ways that are reflected in the dominant cultures of today), or face elimination.
Despite the strong anthropological and biological focus, the book has received attention from business leaders, with Bill Gates being among those recommending the book. I personally was expecting more in the book that could be applied to organizational/ managerial practices, but there was some relevant material. Diamond does summarize some of the business applications in the epilogue, but he clearly does not have much of a business background, and states himself that he was surprised at the attention the business world has given the book. The most useful info relates to optimal workgroup sizes, and transfer of information and technologies within organizations.
Overall, I do recommend the book, but I would also recommend skipping through some of the drier material, such as the frequent in-depth analysis of wheat (unless that’s your kind of thing).
Here’s some info on the author:
Jared Diamond, professor of physiology at the UCLA School of Medicine, began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, and has received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a Phi Beta Kappa Award, the Burr Award of the National Geographic Society, and the National Medal of Science. He has published over 200 articles in Discover, Natural History, Nature, and Geo magazines.
Book rating: 4.0 of 5.0 stars